Friday, June 24, 2005

Still Searching

I believe that everyone should have the right to her choices. But I can’t lie to you: this woman’s First Person column, about abandoning her career the minute she discovered she was pregnant, left me mightily depressed.

I’m all in favor of discernment, and if Hannah Goodwin now knows better what she wants in life, then bully for her. As she writes early in her piece:

Although I have the training and personality to be the type of person who puts her career above all else, I've discovered that, to my surprised relief, there are other things I value more.

But I felt a little dismayed reading the ways that she came to this discovery. Looking for the job was too inconvenient and time-consuming. The need to do phone interviews wasn’t feasible from an office she shared with six people. (Was there never another time in which or place from which to do such interviews?) But then comes the kicker: the main reasons that Goodwin was putting her own job search on hold were because she didn’t want to interfere with her husband’s job search.

As Goodwin writes:

In essence, I took the role of "trailing" spouse, preferring that my husband nail down his job first. The feminist in me was unhappy with that state of affairs, but not unhappy enough to make me get off my duff and go find a job. After thinking long and hard, I realized that although it is absolutely important to me to have a challenging job that I enjoy, my partner values the overall importance of his job much more than I do mine. Subconsciously I think I knew that. So I didn't feel justified in going out there and banging my drum, demanding that we move to a certain location so I could have my dream job and insisting that my husband follow.

It was at this point in the article that I felt the earth grinding slowly backwards on its axis. And thus commenced my silent screaming:

You “didn’t feel justified” going after your dream job and “insisting that [your] husband follow”? Honey, isn’t he insisting the same of you? Girlfriend, I just want to shake you and make you do a close reading of your own language. Do I detect fear? insecurity? ambivalence? Maybe even a little laziness?

One reason I’m so frustrated with Hannah Goodwin is that her situation is something like my own. I was a “trailing spouse” who let her husband “nail down his job first.” (God, I hate that phrase.) Like Goodwin, I reasoned that my partner “value[d] the overall importance of his job much more than I do mine.” But I’m here to tell you that that kind of other-directed-ness can come back to bite you in the ass. While my partner and I are glad for the extra time we’ve had together, we would also be the first to tell you that that time together wasn’t as happy as it could have been had we given equal — or even nearly equal —attention to my own undeniable need for meaningful work. I’m here to tell Hannah Goodwin that it’s not so simple to turn one’s back on one’s years of training and toil. For me at least, there was misery and mourning over my lost identity. It was a long, painful road to reconstructing and revising that identity and feeling again that I deserved the kind of fulfilling job that I had once declined to seek.

That struggle wasn’t just about a derailed job search. It was also about confronting my own fear, insecurity, ambivalence, and yes, laziness. It seemed a lot easier to be relieved of the things that scared me. If I never was put to the test on the market, then I never risked failure on it. Unfortunately, I felt like much more of a failure for having so blithely abandoned my own desires.

Goodwin refers to “the feminist in me” as being unhappy with her instinct to follow her husband. Again, everybody deserves to make her own choice and should not have to justify them to anyone living in a different skin. But I wonder why the feminist in her had no problem with the classic crunch for so many of us:

One of the reasons that I didn't want a tenure-track job in academe was because of the long hours involved at a time in my life when I was starting to think about having children. I feared the same would be true of work at a small start-up.

Yes. I can relate. But did you really have to turn down the possibility of a short-term consulting contract? Were there no creative solutions to be found, such as having your husband ask for a deferral on the start date of his new employment, so you could experience the consulting job’s tropical location together? And, if you didn’t like the idea of going to work pregnant, shouldn't we try to change the conditions that suggest a pregnant body is somehow embarrassing or unprofessional?

Goodwin concludes: I'm content at the thought of having some time off from work to prepare for our first child, and being able to spend as much time as I want with the baby without having to worry about when my maternity leave would end. And just like that, I learned what my priorities are: my husband and our child. My job search certainly didn't turn out the way I thought it would, but that's all right. It's good to make plans, but sometimes plans change.

I suspect that Goodwin will be very happy. I hope that she will be. Babies are, in the traditional sense of the word, awesome. Motherhood is a seriously meaningful job, one that doesn't always get the respect it deserves. And, indeed, it is great that Goodwin doesn’t have to worry about when her maternity leave will end. (At least assuming that her husband’s job stays solid and that both he and their relationship remain in good health.)

Sadly, though Goodwin also confirms one of my deepest fears about getting pregnant myself: that I will become a self-denying pod person who cheerfully sublimates my dreams. And who willfully forgets who I was or who I still want to be.

Let this be a lesson to me.


At 12:14 PM, Blogger Yankee T said...

This is a great, thought-provoking post. And somehow I missed your return the other day, so welcome back! You've been missed.
Hope you're nothing but happy in your new situation.

At 1:03 PM, Anonymous New Kid on the Hallway said...

Thank you SO much for writing this. I was disturbed by the column, too, but wasn't quite sure how to put it, especially how to avoid making it look like I disapprove of SAHM-ing or something. But I completely agree with what you say here - well put.

At 3:40 PM, Blogger timna said...

getting pregnant and having children has different effects on different people. I certainly got more motivated after my second child to get back to my academic work, finish the MA, and, when my husband finished his phd, to pack us up for my own. depends on so many factors.

At 4:03 PM, Blogger anbruch said...

This is really a great post, and it really speaks to me about how perilous these sorts of decisions—two career couples and so forth—are. Often, I feel like there are just no good decisions, only ones that are not quite as bad as the others. And typically it is most difficult to figure out in prospect which is the best of that set of bad choices.

Really the whole situation just sucks.

Thanks again for this post!


At 7:52 AM, Blogger meg said...

I let my Chronicle subscription lapse while I'm away-away-oh, so I haven't seen the article. But yeah. *fume*

Also, WHAT "feminist in me"?!? One of the main points of feminism is that when we are seized with insecurity, self-esteem issues, and laziness -- as most of us are, often on a daily basis -- we do NOT fall back on a man to avoid our demons.

Trailing spouses happen, and it's only fair that sometimes is her, not him. But appealing to gender for justification (even if it wasn't overt) is so very, very wrong.

At 11:26 PM, Blogger bitchphd said...

Great post.

And FWIW, getting pregnant and all that didn't make me into a pod person. It did change things, but no, not pod person.

At 10:54 AM, Blogger Ms. Pipestem said...

Generally I lurk here, but wow. Thought-provoking post, not least because it hits me where I live. I'm only exam-ing and plan to follow my dissertating husband to wherever he gets a job, possibly just avoid the whole market myself and use all my education to stay home and pretend like I'm a writer... yet, though nothing wrong with that, it does come partly from my fear I won't be able to hack it on the job market, or god, even in the exam room.

I thought I was recognizing that a straight-up academic job isn't what I think I want, but possibly it's that, but mixed in with a larger-than-I-am-admitting helping of fear and laziness.

At 6:56 AM, Blogger Anitsirc said...

I agree with the comments. I read your post several days ago and I've been thinking about it. In a way I am in a similar situation (though I'm not pregnant)--I moved away from my university to write my dissertation out of residency so that I could be with my husband. Who, btw, has absolutely no plans or desires to move (he has a good career going on, plus he loves our city), so that means I am restricted in my job search to the North-East (Philly area). Which might be one of the toughest job market for academics. ... Lots to think about....

At 12:20 PM, Anonymous Olivia Eyre said...

Thanks so much for this article. I, too, was shaken by her conclusions. If you look way back in the Chronicle First Persons, I made the same decision to capitulate to my husband's desire to move. We're divorced now, and I'm newly moved somewhere to a position that challenges me and is what I want. I wish I knew how couples can make these kinds of compromises, but I find it really difficult for me to not give up my identity in such situations (perhaps because it was what I think a good girl/good wife is supposed to do?).

In any case, thank you again for writing about it. Best wishes to all posters as we struggle with these issues.

At 11:11 PM, Blogger YelloCello said...

Thank you to all who responded to this post. I was really gratified to hear what others are thinking... as well as how you have negotiated partnerships and/or parenting in your own lives.

Olivia, I'm grateful that you wrote. I had read your columns before, and wondered how things had gone forward (And backwards... as in, did your adviser ever decide to share?). I'm sorry about the divorce. But I’m glad to hear that you are finding the life that you want. I think I know what you mean when you allude to the hazard of giving up your identity in a marriage. I sometimes wonder if my first marriage could have been saved (although I'm quite relieved that it wasn't) if we had been a little older and more skilled at negotiating who we were and would be in relation to each other. Divorce is traumatic, obviously, and I wish nobody ever had to go through it. But there is no denying that it’s an effective teacher. A friend of mine refuses to even consider dating anyone who’s been divorced. While I can understand her hesitancy, I also think that she may be passing on the chance to meet some really fine people — people who have had to confront who they are and what they want. People who approach their relationships with a thoughtfulness, commitment, and tender loyalty that is, in part, the product of knowing what it is for a relationship to die.

Meanwhile, Christina — I have to confess that I love the Philadelphia area, just for having grown up there and for still having family there. (That's one of the many reasons I like visiting your blog.) Fingers crossed that one of the many fine universities and colleges in that area might have a welcoming place for you.

And for the record, B., I think there are valid reasons to avoid the market — especially it means following up on the desires that won't stop tugging at your heart. I've used exactly the same phrase to describe the possibility of staying home and "pretending to be a writer." (Of course, sometimes, I mix it up and say "play at" being a writer. Ha ha.) But I later wonder why I reach for a verb like pretend. Is that an appropriate humility? Or also part of my mental safety net? Anyway, B., I admire folks who go through graduate school, but then stylishly flout conventional expectations of what they're supposed to do with their graduate training. It takes courage to go on the market, no doubt about it. But it also takes courage to make a deliberate change of course.

At 11:07 PM, Blogger PPB said...

great post. will be chewing on this for a while.

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